In recent years, there has been a growing trend to “green” fleets using new emissions-reducing technology and techniques.
However, green technology isn’t really a wholly new phenomenon for many fleets. Indeed, green truck fleets have existed for decades. While some fleets are old pros at integrating and managing these cutting-edge fleet assets, there are a growing number of fleets including green trucks in their mix for the first time.
While, on the whole, the new technology is saving money and adding other efficiencies, it can come at a premium and requires some new ways to manage and maintain these assets.
Below are snapshots of how truck fleets around the country are going green.
Leading the Way
Schwan’s Home Service trucks were “green” long before the current trend in alternative-fuel technology. Ironically, its motivation was surprisingly contemporary, explained Roger Porter, director of fleet acquisitions. “Back in the 1970s, Marvin Schwan was looking to break our dependence on foreign oil,” he said. So, the fleet was transitioned to propane autogas — a difficult task in the late 20th century, because many OEMs didn’t have the necessary gaseous-prep engines needed to make the conversion.
Today, 73 percent of Schwan’s 5,000 vehicles are powered by propane autogas, including Ford E-450 Cutaways, GMC Savana cargo vans, and Izuzu cab-forwards. “This percentage would be much higher — but [due to the recession] there was a limited availability of gaseous-prep engines,” said Porter, whose long-term goal is to convert 100 percent of the fleet to propane autogas.
While propane autogas has been a big part of Schwan’s fleet for more than a quarter century, Porter said he is continuously re-evaluating this commitment. “It’s a business decision and we review it every year and find the investment pays off every year,” he said.
Propane autogas has brought numerous benefits to Schwan’s fleet in addition to its economics. Propane autogas is domestically produced — fulfilling founder Marvin Schwan’s goal to break dependence on foreign oil. Propane-autogas-fueled vehicles also tend to be quieter and have fewer damaging emissions.
The biggest challenge has been finding gaseous engine options from the OEMs. “We continually ask and lobby the OEMs,” Porter said. “Unfortunately, the various types of engines we need are not always available.”
Schwan’s operates its own fueling infrastructure at 95 percent of its facilities, cross-training its warehouse personnel how to fuel the vehicles. This has made its sales personnel more efficient. “It gives them more time to do their jobs,” Porter said.
Even with the efficiencies gained by operating propane-autogas-fueled trucks, Schwan’s still relies on grant money to help fund the purchase of the vehicles. The company has worked with the Clean Cities Coalition for a number of years and recently joined the coalition’s National Clean Fleets Partnership, which will help make the grant process more efficient.
“We have had an excellent relationship with the regional Clean Cities organizations, but, since Schwan’s is in every state, it was inefficient to work with every location individually. Belonging to the Clean Fleets Partnership streamlines this by giving us one point of contact,” Porter explained.
Measuring the ‘Five Cs’
It’s not just fleets with a long experience with alternative-fuel vehicles that are part of the National Clean Fleets Partnership. ThyssenKrupp Elevator, a recent entrant to the propane-autogas fraternity, is using the resources of the Clean Cities offshoot to help fund and convert its fleet as well.
“It’s helped us find new markets where we can benefit from incentive money,” explained Tom Armstrong, director of fleet for ThyssenKrupp. “It also gives us better insight into the country as a whole and more insight on new technologies by streamlining the information.”
Although ThyssenKrupp has just recently begun greening its fleet — and is sure to benefit from the financial intelligence available from the National Clean Fleets Partnership — the company as a whole is committed to global sustainability, explained Armstrong. “Green is in our [corporate] DNA. And, we asked how we could take this [sensibility] to fleet.”
But, the desire to “green” ThyssenKrupp’s truck fleet didn’t mean that vehicle technology was adopted for its own sake.Instead, Armstrong developed a system he refers to as the “Five Cs” that he uses to evaluate green vehicle technology. Each “C” is straightforward in what it measures:
● Is it Clean?
● Is it Cost-effective?
● Does it Conserve?
● Does it make Common sense?
● Can you Commit?
Using this approach, Armstrong found the only alternative fuel that made sense was propane autogas.
Since making this determination, the fleet has deployed propane-autogas-fueled trucks and vans in Phoenix and Seattle and will soon be introducing them to its Los Angeles and San Diego operations.
Although propane autogas met all of Armstrong’s “Cs,” he discovered there was a sixth “C” — challenge.
While the drivers were enthusiastic about propane autogas and the fleet is seeing fuel-cost savings, Armstrong said the biggest challenge came from a key feature of the fleet — the drivers take their vehicles home at night.
This meant that he could only deploy vehicles where there is a local, public supply. “We have to work with our suppliers — they dictate where we go,” Armstrong observed.
These challenges aside (which Armstrong said “were fun” to solve), Armstrong expects to have about 10 percent of the 3,100-plus vehicle fleet running on propane autogas by 2015.
In the meantime, he keeps evaluating all other alt-fuel technology through the lens of his “Five Cs.”
Making an Alt-Fuel Switch
Making the switch from conventional fuel to an alternative fuel can be difficult enough — then switching to another alternative fuel can be downright daunting. But, that’s exactly what Waste Management of Houston did several years ago when it changed from liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks to compressed natural gas (CNG) for most new natural-gas-powered trucks going forward.
The change was dictated by the fact that “CNG is easier to manage, it’s cheaper, and there’s no vapor loss as you have with LNG,” explained John Lemmons, director of fleet and equipment performance for Waste Management.
The company, which provides waste management services throughout the U.S. and Canada will have about 10 percent of its fleet running on CNG in a variety of Peterbilt, Freightliner, Mack, and Autocar model trucks by the end of 2012.
Lemmons said there are numerous benefits from committing to CNG vehicles. One of the biggest is the reduction of vehicle downtime and the inexpensiveness of CNG. “I can buy CNG at less than half what I spend for diesel. The payback for a CNG truck is less than three years,” he noted. “Convincing our management to commit to CNG was an easy sell based on the financial models. ”
Another big benefit of switching to CNG was the ability of the Waste Management crews to be more efficient. Because CNG vehicles don’t have the same emissions control systems as a conventional diesel truck, each of the company’s vehicles have an extra 2,000-lb. payload capacity.
But, with the benefits came challenges — the biggest is tied to the company’s fueling infrastructure, which is operated by Waste Management. “The logistics of conversion can be a challenge, since no two sites are the same,” Lemmons explained. “Some have a very quick turnaround, in terms of site permitting and readily available natural gas, while others don’t. We’ve dedicated a group of employees to handling our fueling infrastructure. One thing we’ve learned is that the availability of your fueling infrastructure has to coincide with your truck order.”
Losing Weight & Changing the Fuel Diet
For American Residential Services (ARS) of Memphis, Tenn., the process of greening its truck fleet began with a simple question. “In 2009, the president asked if we were considering any alternative fuels for our vehicles. The answer was, yes, we were researching a variety of options to present to senior management in the near future,” recalled Mike Baessler, director of purchasing and fleet.
While Baessler was researching the ideal alt-fuel for the fleet, he put his trucks on a diet, taking weight out of the box trucks and working to make them more aerodynamic.
Once the fleet had been lightened, Baessler determined that propane autogas was the best fuel option based on truck and payload size for its Ford E-250, E-350, and E-450 vehicles. Currently, about 1 percent of its fleet is powered by propane autogas.
After two years of preparation, the roll out of ARS’ propane-autogas-powered vehicles began in July 2011, and they quickly proved their worth. The initial 19 vehicles introduced to the Houston market have met with positive response from employees, who like that the vehicles are quiet, have less fuel odor, and offer more power.
Baessler also likes that he’s seeing a serious decrease in his fuel spend. “We’ve seen a reduced fuel cost of more than $1 per gallon in Texas and close to $2 in California,” he said.
Fuel costs have gone down, but Baessler and his team had a few headaches making fueling at mostly public stations work. “We had to modify our fuel card safeguards,” he explained. “There are limited MCC [merchant category codes], so when the drivers tried to tank up at U-Haul or the hardware store, their cards were declined. In Texas, some locations didn’t have differential pumps with enough horsepower to fill the vehicle tanks in the heat of the summer; we have our own onsite tank in place now that eliminates that issue. But, those are the kinds of things you have to be prepared for when making the switch to an alternative fuel.”
Baessler said ARS is committed to propane-autogas-fueled trucks, but is keeping his eyes open regarding other alt-fuel technology. Propane-autogas or other alt-fuel vehicles will be introduced based on the needs of that market. And, how green ARS’ fleet will get depends on a big unknown — the price of gasoline. “If there’s a dramatic increase or decrease in gasoline we’ll take that into consideration,” he said.
Propane autogas and compressed natural gas (CNG) may be among the more popular alternative fuels for truck fleets. But, thanks to the work of the Hybrid Truck Users Forum (HTUF), hybrid-electric technology may become as common an alternative-power source for trucks as the other alternative options.
A project administered by CALSTART, a member organization dedicated to expanding and supporting a clean transportation industry, HTUF works to assist users and truck makers to reach pre-production manufacturing levels and deployment based on developing common key performance requirements with committed users.
Steps to achieve this may include fleet characterization, business case development, lifecycle and performance modeling, and sharing technical information. These key performance requirements, shared with manufacturers, serve as the basis of pilot deployments and then production.
Building an Alliance
Lack of a fueling infrastructure can be an impediment to adopting alternative-fuel technology for fleet use.
In addition to onsite fueling installation, Alliance AutoGas offers an aftermarket bi-fuel conversion system that starts an engine using gasoline and immediately switches over to propane autogas.
Alliance also supports its conversion system by training a fleet’s maintenance team and drivers. Beyond basic training, the company provides technical and safety support and ongoing service.